Moving series of portraits shows China’s LGBT youth in their safe spaces in a country still failing to accept them

Homosexuality was deemed both a criminal offence and a mental illness in China as recently as two decades ago, and enormous stigma remains. Italian photographer Teo Butturini snaps LGBT people in Beijing in the places – often the only place – they say they feel safe

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Italian photographer Teo Butturini has captured images of young LGBT people living in Beijing in the places that are important to them as part of his latest project, which attempts to tackle stigma in China. Most keep their true identity hidden even from family and friends, while a few tried to come out, with mixed fortunes. For many, the mere act of showing their face requires enormous courage. 

It is estimated that more than 40 million people in China are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. But homosexuality was a crime there as recently as 1997, and was only removed from the official list of mental illnesses in 2001. Massive stigma remains and, even today, many Chinese psychologists believe homosexuality can be “treated” and offer programmes to “turn youths back to heterosexuality”.

Thirty years of single-child policy created an even more difficult situation for LGBT people. In a country where the young are expected to provide for their parents and having a son is considered a must, parents often cannot accept that their child is gay, even if they can accept the general idea of homosexuality. Many young LGBT people move from their own villages to big cities, in order to escape ostracism – often those who remain hide their sexuality or are forced into marriages by their parents. Recently the Chinese government issued a document forbidding the airing and publishing of any content related to violence, drug and alcohol abuse, adultery, smoking, reincarnation, homosexuality and any form of behaviour that “exaggerates the dark side of society”.

Earlier this year, the government censored an online drama titled ADDICTED, exploring LGBT-related topics in a high school as part of an art project regarding the LGBT community in the country. The series was organised with the Beijing LGBT centre – an NGO working to raise social awareness and advocating LGBT related topics. The centre also promotes activities connecting LGBT youths and offers counselling to families.

Xiao, 33, from Hebei, and her girlfriend Chen, 28, from Heilongjiang, chose Xiao's parents’ house as “their” place. They have been living here together for months, even if Xiao’s parents don’t accept her being a lesbian and keep on acting as if she and Chen are just friends. The parents were going to be included in this shot, but later decided not to take part
Elvans, 21 from Beijing, is says he is still discovering his sexuality. He doesn’t know whether he’s gay or transgender, but dressing as a woman makes him feel comfortable. His chosen place is the storage of his university’s acting company,of which he is the leader. Acting, either on stage or just for a rehearsal, gives him the chance to dress as a woman with no one criticising him, but applauding instead
Daniel, 22, from a small village in Hunan province. This public toilet reminds him of his first sexual encounter. He was 17 and really wanted to have a sexual experience, so, as often happens, he found a partner on a social network and they decided to meet in a public convenience. The stranger performed oral sex on him and then went away. From that moment Daniel hasn’t been able to emit a sound during sex
Mondo, 25 from Hebei province, is one of the owners of Adam’s club, which is also his special place. He says he chose to open this establishment in Sanlitun, which is the most popular nightlife area in Beijing, because it’s time for LGBT people in China to stop hiding, and to live their love and their lives in the open, as everyone else does
Yichi, 23, from Henan province, says he has been lucky as his family, friends and boss accept the fact he is gay, and no one has ever made a fuss about it. He chose the brewery where he works as his special place, because it's not easy in China to find a job in a gay-friendly company, and everyone here is incredibly supportive
Jason, 25, from Guangdong province, came to Beijing to try to make a career as a musician and escape his parents, who he says were still treating him as a child and wouldn’t accept his homosexuality. He wanted his portrait to be shot on the rooftop of the office building where he’s living
Jay, 30, from Beijing, had been living and studying chemistry in Canada for long time before coming back to China. This hospital emergency department is his special place, because a few years ago he had a brain aneurysm and his boyfriend immediately brought him here. They saved his life and, after waking from the coma, he decided he would tell everybody he is gay, so that he could live the rest of his life free to be who he is
Island, 26, from Beijing, is very attached to the ancient traditions of China, especially Confucianism. Too many people nowadays criticise the old wisdom, he says, but it’s something that has helped him understand his parents and vice versa. His story is one of the few happy ones, with his family and friends fully accepting his sexuality
Rainy, 30, comes from a small village in Shanxi province. Her parents knows she’s transgender, but don’t accept it. Her special place in Beijing is the hutong, or narrow street, where her vintage shop is located